You are on page 1of 12



California Water Research Associates June 1, 2011

It is well known that Westlands Water District has severe problems with salinization of soil and groundwater, and that fallowed acreage in Westlands has increased in recent years due to land retirement and lost productivity. Westlands reported an average of 73,000 acres of fallowed land from 2003-2007, before the most recent drought. 1 What has not been well known is that the most acute problems with soil and groundwater impairment are near Mendota, as well as the largest amount of acreage retired as part of settlements of lawsuits over land impairment. This is a compilation of maps , satellite photos, and Congressional testimony which shows that the greatest concentration of fallowed land in Westlands Water District is near Mendota,and that the fallowing is associated with severe soil and groundwater impairment, and with land retirement. This could explain why land near Mendota is still fallowed, in spite of an 80% water allocation in 2011.2 The following evidence is presented: 1. Satellite imagery of fallowed land in 2009, showing evidence of extensive fallowing south of Mendota. 2. Westlands’ 2010 Deep Groundwater Conditions Report, showing extensive salinization of the deep aquifers underlying the same fallowed land. 3. A graph of the sources of water for Westlands Water District from 2007-2009, showing that by 2009, groundwater was 64% of the District’s water supply. 4. A map of salinity impacted soils from the Westside Resource Conservation District, showing the most severe problems in lands south of Mendota. 5. Two articles on the settlements of the Sumner Peck and Sagouspe lawsuits in 2002, that resulted in retirement of over 70,000 acres of land from irrigated production. 6. A map of the retired lands in Westlands Water District, showing the largest concentration of retired land is south of Mendota, in the same area that was fallowed in 2009. 7. A satellite photo of fallowed land in 2005, showing that much of the land south of Mendota was fallowed following the land retirement. While not conclusive, this evidence points towards soil and groundwater salinization as the predominant cause of land fallowing near Mendota. Also, lands retired as part of legal settlements are unlikely to come back into irrigated production.

1. SATELLITE IMAGERY OF FALLOWED LAND IN 2009 Below is a satellite photo of the Northeastern part of Westlands Water District, just south of the City of Mendota, taken by the USDA Farm Service Agency on May 24, 2009, in the third year of drought. The squares are parcels of agricultural land within the District. Green squares are cropped parcels, sand colored squares are mostly fallowed parcels. In 2009, Westlands Water District had only a 10% allocation of water from the Central Valley Project. This was a problem because much of Westlands’ groundwater is heavily contaminated with salt and trace minerals such as selenium and boron from decades of irrigating saline soils. A 2003 Water Management Handbook states that ““Most of the deep well water in the District is of very poor quality.”1

Source: Google Earth



Deep Groundwater Conditions Report, 20103

This map shows one likely cause of extensive fallowing within Westlands– salinization of the deep groundwater in the District. Groundwater salinity is measured by electrical conductivity, which is shown in units of deciSiemens per meter. The green areas represent deep groundwater that is too saline to be used to irrigate salt

sensitive crops without dilution by imported water; the blue areas represent water of acceptable quality. Note that the green areas on the groundwater map coincide with the brown (likely fallowed) areas on the May 2009 satellite map. Below is a graph of Westlands’ reported water supply from 2007 to 2009, exclusive of transfers acquired by individual growers.4 By 2009, the water supply was 64% groundwater.

Westlands Water Supply 2007-2009
1,200,000 1,000,000 800,000 600,000 400,000 200,000 0 2007 2008 2009 Additional District Supply Groundwater Net CVP

Even with the extensive fallowing of land in Westlands, the contamination of the groundwater produced shriveled crops. The District reported 41,000 acres of crops as “non-harvested” in 2009.5 Growers also reported extensive issues with salt and boron in groundwater ruining crops.6 The problems with contamination of Westlands’ deep groundwater by salt, boron and selenium derives from decades of irrigating the alkali soils in the District. The west side San Joaquin Valley soils are only arable if they are amended with gypsum and leached with fresh water before planting. The gypsum releases salt in the soil, which is then flushed into the shallow groundwater by the leaching process. This shallow, saline groundwater then flows down slope towards the Valley floor, where it accumulates and causes increasingly waterlogged and salty soils. According to the Westside Resource Conservation District: Because of the naturally occurring salts in west side soils and salts brought to the soil in surface and well water, a certain fraction of the water applied to irrigate crops is used to flush the salts below crop root zones. This saline, subsurface water percolates down until it reaches an impermeable layer of clay, usually 6 to 10 feet below the surface. Once this drain water encounters impermeable clay, it flows laterally northeasterly to the eastern edge of the Westlands Water District. Approximately 200,000 acres of farmland in the eastern half of the Westlands Water District has become too water-logged and saline to grow crops. 7

Mendota is on the northeastern edge of Westlands Water District, and is one of the areas that has been most impacted.


Source: Westside Resource Conservation District8

This is a recent map of soil salinity on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley

Below is a closeup of the map south of Mendota. The gray spot in the upper left is the city, the dark orange and red areas are very high or extremely high in salinity. Salinity is known to have ruined the productivity of thousands of acres south of Mendota.

The problem dates back to the closure of the San Luis Drain in 1986, after deformed birds were found in Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, poisoned by toxic selenium in the drainage water. The San Luis Drain was closed, and lands that had been using the drain became increasingly waterlogged and salty. Lawsuits were filed by landowners against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lawsuits were settled in 2002 with the retirement of the land.



LA Times:

4 Families to Split Big Share of Farm Deal9
Secretary of State Bill Jones and his relatives are among those who would accept millions for land saturated with salt by lack of drainage.

December 20, 2002|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer Four prominent farming families, including California Secretary of State Bill Jones and his relatives, would receive $70 million from the federal government as part of a proposed settlement announced last week that would fallow 32,400 acres of damaged farmland. Exhibits filed in U.S. District Court here also show that the four families would receive an additional $19 million from the private water district that acted on their behalf to provide federal water to irrigate farms now saturated with salt and selenium. The families had argued that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and their own Westlands Water District failed to build a drainage system to remove the toxic runoff of water irrigating what is an ancient seabed on Fresno County's west side. This failure to finish one of the biggest irrigation projects in the West doomed their land, they said, making fertile fields a boggy wasteland….

California Water Law & Policy Reporter:

Westlands Water District Settles Lawsuit with Massive Ag Land Retirement Program: First Phase of Two Phased Land Retirement Plan10
Sagouspe et. al. vs. Westlands Water District et al. Case No. F-01-6342 OWWLIO On April 29, 2002, a settlement was filed with the U.S. District Court in Fresno, bringing to an end a fractious litigation stemming from the merger of Westlands Water District (Westlands) and the West Plains Water District in 1965. Plaintiffs represented landowners from the original West Plains Water District and challenged the method and amount of water allocations from Westlands’ Central Valley Project (CVP) contract. In exchange for the dismissal, Westlands agreed to acquire sufficient water rights to serve all district lands in agricultural production with 2.6 acre-feet of water annually. Westlands will fulfill this agreement through the purchase and permanent retirement from agricultural production of between 75,000 and 100,000 acres of farmland… The settlement is intended to address both the water supply and drainage issues facing the district. … The settlement addresses Westlands’ supply issues by providing more water to the remaining acreage, while paying a fair price to those farmers whose land is removed from production. Second, the settlement addresses the drainage issue by removing the impacted land from production and obviating the federal government’s obligation to provide drainage for the retired land.


Source: Westside Resource Conservation District

Map of 77,130 acres of retired land in Westlands Water District, including 33, 864 acres from the Sumner Peck settlement, 3,100 acres from the Britz settlement, 38022 acres acquired by Westlands as part of the Sagouspe 11 settlement, and 2,144 acres retired through the CVPIA land retirement program

This is the most recent available map of retired land in Westlands Water District. The total retired acreage is likely more than that shown on the map.12 The retired acreage has had its CVP water supply reallocated to better lands upslope in the former West Plains district.



Source: Google Earth

July 18 2004: Closeup South of Mendota Below is a satellite photo of land south of Mendota, taken in July 4, 2005, showing extensive fallowing three years after the land retirement began.

In 2007, Sargeant J. Green, Secretary-Manager of Westside Resource Conservation District testified to the extent of the impacts: “… during my tenure as manager of Tranquillity Irrigation District, I saw the number of farm operators in Tranquillity drop from over 50 to less than 25. Many of them gave up on their ground in Westlands; they were bought out for the water supply so it could move upslope to the permanent crop ground….A noticeable swath of over 43,000 acres is unmistakably visible when you drive State Highway 33 south of Mendota or see an overhead aerial picture.”13

Evidence also indicates that Westlands has continued to include the retired land in its crop reports. An environmental assessment in 2006 noted that Westlands was still including land from the Sumner Peck Settlement on its crop reports, even though the land had covenants prohibiting irrigation by ground or surface water.14 Westlands has sought to convert the Sumner Peck lands to other uses, including a new federal prison. A 2004 Environmental Impact Report for the transfer of 600 acres to the Federal Bureau of Prison noted that the Sumner Peck lands are essentially no longer viable for agricultural production: “Given the continued drainage problems in the area, the agricultural productivity of the “Sumner-Peck” Settlement lands has decreased dramatically, and would likely have continued to decrease to the point that the lands would have been removed from agricultural production even absent the Settlement Agreement. Although dryland farming is not prohibited under the “Sumner-Peck” Settlement Agreement, it is not likely to be viable given the environmental factors in the area. Notably, the Proposed Project area receives, on average, approximately 8 inches of precipitation per year. As a result, dryland farming has not been shown to be commercially viable in Westlands Water District.”15 The EIR also noted: The Proposed Project … would provide much needed employment in Fresno County as employment is degrading in the agricultural sector due to land becoming unproductive.

Retired lands from the Sagouspe settlement do not have non-irrigation covenants, and so can be farmed with the help of supplemental irrigation from groundwater. However the profit potential may be low, depending on the salinity of the groundwater. The attached chart from the Westside Resource Conservation District shows some of the limitations.16 In 2006, Westlands indicated that the retired lands owned by the District were either grazed by livestock, dry-land farmed or fallowed and routinely disked to control weeds. 17

There have been many claims that land fallowing near Mendota, and the consequent job losses, are due to reductions in water deliveries due to changes in the operations of the Central Valley Project. However, the evidence in this report points to land retirement, and soil and groundwater impairment by salt, selenium, boron and other trace minerals as the predominant cause of land fallowing in the area. In the case of the land purchased and retired by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the land cannot be irrigated by surface or groundwater, and the agricultural job losses are permanent. The lands acquired by Westlands Water District as part of the Sagouspe settlement could be brought back into irrigated production by implementation an Integrated On-Farm Drainage system. However, due in part to the service cost of the $100 million in bonds issued by the District to acquire land, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has determined that the District cannot afford to repay the cost of implementing a drainage system. 18 When attempting to ameliorate agricultural unemployment in a region with extensive problems with soil and groundwater impairment, all the factors in land fallowing should be considered.


Westlands Water District, 2004-2007 crop reports, fallowed acreage averaged 2003: 2004: 2005: 2006: 2007:


U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Mid-Pacific Water Supply Allocation, April 25, 2011

Westlands Water District, Deep Groundwater Conditions Report, December 2010 port%20(Dec%202010)


Westlands Water District, Annual Water Supply and Use Supply&cwide=1280

Westlands Water District, 2009 crop report,

See, for example, Adam Satariano, Drought in California Forces Farmers to Spend on `Fire Water', Bloomberg News, June 24, 2008

Westside Resource Conservation District web page, “About us”


Westside Resource Conservation District, Managing Agricultural Irrigation Drainage Water: A guide for developing Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management Systems, 2005.

Mark Arax, 4 Families to Split Big Share of Farm Deal, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2002

Westlands Water District Settles Lawsuit with Massive Ag Land Retirement Program; First Phase of Twophased Land Retirement Plan, California Water Law & Policy, July 2002

S.E. Phillips, Map from unpublished report to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, CSU Stanislaus, Endangered Species Recovery Program, 2006, published in collection of maps by Westside Resource Conservaiton District.

A 2006 Environmental Assessment by the US Bureau of Reclamation estimated Westlands’ acquired land at 88,935 acres. See Final Environmental Assessment, Non-irrigation Covenant Exchange, US Bureau of Reclamation EA 06-76

Testimony Of Sargeant J. Green, Secretary-Manager, Westside Resource Conservation District To Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water And Power , September 25, 2007

See Final Environmental Assessment, Non-irrigation Covenant Exchange, op. cit.


Westlands Water District, Proposed Transfer of Real Property Owned by Westlands Water District to the United Sates Federal Bureau of Prisons for Change in Use to Federal Correctional Facility, Environmental Impact Report, June 2004.

Westside Resource Conservation District, Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management (salt management & disposal), Jan 15, 2009.

See Final Environmental Assessment, Non-irrigation Covenant Exchange, op. cit.


Costs for providing drainage can be found on page 105 of the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, San Luis Drainage Feature Re-evaluation Record of Decision [2006]